My father was the first great man I ever knew. He was the first man I ever loved, the first man I ever trusted, and the first man I ever looked up to. When I was five or six, I excitedly flipped through the pages of a Guinness Book of World Records expecting to find my father’s image under the caption for the “World’s Tallest Man.” In my young eyes, he was the tallest, kindest, smartest, and best-at-everything man in the universe. It didn’t occur to me at that time that anyone could be taller than my father (who stands at about 6’5”). But that’s how great my father was to me—in my eyes, he was larger than life. It is perhaps for this reason that when faced with other (more broadly noted) great men, I tend to see in them traces of my father’s likeness.
As far as I was concerned, my father was a giant. Sitting atop his shoulders I felt empowered by my lofty perspective. Too small to reach the handlebars on the subway or bus, with legs too short for my feet to touch the floor in adult-sized seating, I was in awe of my father’s height. (To this day I am still impressed by the exceptionally tall—as if height were a measure of willpower.)
I didn’t think my father great just because he’s tall. He and my mother were my first (and most robust) role models. He taught me by example—rarely lecturing, except when it came time to clean my room. I never saw him loose his temper. I never saw him give up. He was thoughtful and generous. He was strong, but never a bully. His shoes were always shined, his shirts always perfectly pressed with starched straight collars. These were details he didn’t delegate away, but attended to himself. (When he taught me to iron his handkerchiefs, I regarded the task as an honor—never a chore.)
As a child, I saw my father’s greatness in the details. His ability to remember all of my requests without writing anything down—be it an invitation to a school event or a request that he buy some Häagan-Dazs on his way home. He never let my childhood world feel small—never condescended or appeared disinterested. He gave his full adult attention to my wishes, hobbies, fears, and falls.
My father taught me how to keep trying when success is not easy or immediate. He taught me the importance of taking the long-view approach—of pursuing the goal, but not at the expense of the process. He taught me how to work hard and that education is its own reward. He had high standards, but he never let me feel as though my best wasn’t good enough.
Humans are capable of so much, and each example of greatness I encounter amazes me. The person who can turn failure into success, poverty into wealth, or ignorance into intelligence. These are stories that make my heart swell with pride in the potential for human achievement—for excellence in any category—be it business, diligence, creativity, love, or intellect.
I recently had the chance to see Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. I can’t fully articulate all that this movie made me think and feel. But mostly I walked away from it overwhelmed by the extremes of human greatness—our great capacity for benevolence and cruelty. One group subjugating another, racism, apartheid, greed. Guns in white hands aimed and fired at the unarmed backs of black men, women, and children who are fleeing. Black anger aiming violence at other blacks. A tire fit around the neck and ignited as retribution for collusion with “the enemy.” Purveyors of progress, agents of change, the relentless struggle against the status quo, wanting better for the next generation. In the face of enormous obstacles…belief…hope.
A woman (Winnie Mandela) ripped from her screaming children, put into solitary confinement for more than a year, but emerging harder, not broken. A man (Nelson Mandela) stripped of his freedom for twenty-seven years, but never relinquishing his dream for equality. I am dwarfed by the greatness found in such people. Could I have done the same? Could I overcome such great odds when some days the thought of cooking dinner—or just taking a shower—is enough to exhaust me?
Seeing a movie like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, I can’t help but wonder who I would have been had I been born into another time in history. Would I have had the courage to defy my oppressors and risk death? Would I have stoically borne my abuse while plotting my revenge? Would I have pursued peace in the face of violence, or would I have relented?
I imagine that some great men and women are born, and others are forged in the fire of their circumstances. Some rise to the challenge, and others initiate it. I hope that I never have to face trials (or a sentence) of the magnitude of Mandela’s. But I also hope that if I ever need to seek out such greatness within myself, that I will be able to find it. I may not have inherited my father’s height, but I hope I possess some of his fortitude.